A Fraught Narrative: Complicating the “War on Terror”

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Terror cannot be destroyed by weapons or signing a peace treaty. A war on terror has no end. — George Lakoff¹

George-Bush-4-21-08This essay was motivated by my difficulty conceiving the form of the War on Terror section of this history. While the Vietnam section of this project fell together fairly easily, partly because the sources were themselves organized into discrete topics, organizing the War on Terror essays proved a much more problematic undertaking. In the first place, the sources available did not group themselves together easily; any topical organization had to be hewn from a fairly homogenous set of materials. Such a task proved problematic, not least because the War on Terror is such a politicized subject. Because selection and classification are always meaning-creating activities — they do not take place in a vacuum of meaning — I was acutely aware that my choices for how to structure the War on Terror would affect how readers interacted with the material. The War on Terror raises many such issues, and because the language customarily used to describe the war is fraught with so many assumptions, I was hesitant to uncritically employ it. More decisively, no good alternate vocabulary existed to speak of the War on Terror. Accordingly, I chose to organize this project around the ‘standard narrative’ of the war.

With those concerns in mind, this brief essay is my attempt to qualify the way I have presented the War on Terror and all that it implies. In it, I hope to suggest a number of different ways in which the War on Terror ought to be reconsidered — everything from the term itself and the assumptions about the world that the War on Terror paradigm embodies, to the way the ‘War on Terror’ narrative is constructed in popular culture and the discursive process by which the September 11 attacks were imbued with meaning in the immediate aftermath of the attacks.

Post-9/11 Cartoon

Post-9/11 Cartoon

Passive acceptance of the ‘standard narrative’ of the War on Terror came to dominate almost every word Bethel students uttered about the war in the early 2000s. This narrative is rooted in the 9/11 attacks, which were seen as emerging out of nothing — an unprompted strike against American soil that was neither prefaced with warning or deserved — and were often linked to past events in American history such as Pearl Harbor. In response, the United States, wounded by the attacks, vowed to exact justice from those responsible. President Bush and his administration quickly identified the strikes as coming from the Al Qaeda organization and its leader, Osama bin Laden, and from Al Qaeda’s shadowy state sponsors, the Afghani Taliban and the Iraqi Saddam Hussein. So-called “radical Islam” provided the ideological impetus for the attacks, which were carried out because the terrorists hated the American way of life and the freedoms American enjoyed. Furthermore, Bush cast radical Islam as part of an “axis of evil” — Hussein’s Iraq, Il’s North Korea, and Khomeini’s Iran — which promoted terror and disorder throughout the world. In its pursuit of justice for the unprovoked attacks, the United States invaded first Afghanistan, toppling the Taliban regime and setting bin Laden to flight, and then Iraq where Hussein’s regime was destroyed in a matter of weeks. Intimately tied to this narrative was the notion that such invasions not only sought to physically bring to justice those responsible, but also to ideologically defeat radical Islam through the promotion of democracy and the neoliberal market economy through a program of nationbuilding. Domestically, the War on Terror narrative meant an expansion of the surveillance state and security apparatus — including militarized police, the Transportation Security Administration, and increasingly the cybersecurity industry — to detect and foil terrorist plots.

bin Laden

bin Laden

In their first responses to the September 11 attacks, Bethel students were clearly not yet sold on this standard narrative, although its elements were present. The September 27 editorials in the Clarion demonstrated the coexistent narratives. Timothy Goddard, for example, used his column in that issue to link the attacks with the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, the event which pulled American into World War II.² But the assumption that military action was the requisite response was contested by two of the Clarion’s authors. Both Na Txia Vang and Bill Lent offered responses that sought to understand how Christians should respond to the attacks. Vang’s editorial developed an argument for greater American foreign aid to troubled regions — the turmoil in Afghanistan, she argued, had allowed Al Qaeda to sprout — and Lent suggested, at least for private Christian citizens, that neither military response or defensive crouching was the proper response; the government, Lent allowed, might legitimately pursue a more forceful course.

The standard narrative of the War on Terror as laid out above is problematic for a host of reasons. At the most basic level, the linguistic construction of the term is nonsensical — “terror” is an abstract noun, and it is no more possible to ‘war’ against it than anger, hate, fear, or happiness. Of course, such constructions are not new in American politics. Before the War on Terror was the War on Poverty. The international relations scholar Francis Fukuyama has noted that ‘terror’ is a tactic, not an enemy, and that by using the word terror, U.S. policy has struggled to differentiate between dissimilar actors; intrastate insurgents are not the same as international jihadists.

Embassy bombing, 1998

Embassy bombing, 1998

More broadly, the timeline that the phrase “War on Terror” evokes is one firmly anchored at the far end by the September 11 attacks. Popular culture suggests that September 11 is a day which Americans should “never forget.” Yet in placing the start of the War on Terror on September 11, 2001 creates historical rupture where continuity should be emphasized — in contrast to the notion that the attacks “changed everything.” Diplomatic historian Marilyn Young suggests that far from drastically altering U.S. foreign policy, September 11 merely reactivated impulses dormant since the end of the Cold War; if history had ended during the 1990s, September 11 saw it come roaring back alive, exactly where it had left off. An amorphous global Islamism replaced the Communism of the Cold War, and U.S. unilateralism was intensified and given new mandate by the attacks.³

Rooting the War on Terror in 9/11, even if that was its proximate cause, also obscures the larger history of U.S. interaction with Al Qaeda and so-called radical Islam over the preceding twenty years. In the early 1980s, the Reagan administration funded and armed the Mujahedeen in Afghanistan, seeking to, in the words of National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, “sow shit in the Soviet’s backyard.”⁴ And during the 1990s, president Clinton engaged Al Qaeda in a cycle of escalating violence of which 9/11 was merely the capstone event — the Khobar Tower bombings in Saudi Arabia, the East African Embassies bombings, and the ramming of the USS Cole in Yemen.⁵ Those attacks were motivated, not by Al Qaeda’s hated of the American “way of life” as Bush claimed, but in response to specific U.S. foreing policy decisions vis-a-vis the Middle East: U.S. support for Israel, intervention in Somali affairs, the presence of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia, support for Russian oppression of Muslims in Chechnya, Indian oppression of Muslims in Kashmir, and Israeli oppression of Muslims in Palestine, and U.S.-led sanctions against Iraq. Far from the puritanical objections to American culture ascribed to them, Al Qaeda’s stated justification for the attacks was concrete, specific, and politically-motivated.

Cartoon illustrating a (fallacious) historical analogy

Cartoon illustrating a (fallacious) historical analogy

Indeed, the way the standard narrative of the War on Terror arose was not accidental, as scholar of political violence Richard Jackson documented in his 2005 book Writing the War on Terror. From the first hours after the attacks, the War on Terror narrative was discursively created by Bush administration officials. Jackson traced how the attacks were constructed as a premeditated and unprovoked assault, a characterization which allowed America to assume the status of victim. Further, while the attacks were initially described as “acts of mass murder” and “acts of terror,” within a few short days, that language had shifted to “acts of war.” By casting the 9/11 attacks as the first battle in a war, the administration was able to discursively open new avenues of response, including military action, which would not otherwise have been deemed appropriate.

The 9/11 attacks were also immediately linked to previous American historical moments. Jackson identified three — the War of 1812, Pearl Harbor, and the Cold War. Each of these comparisons contributed to the way the War on Terror narrative was constructed. The War of 1812 allowed 9/11 to be linked with the historic American struggle for liberty from colonial Britain. Pearl Harbor importantly strengthened the legitimacy of the war language used to describe the attacks, suggested that war was a normative framework for responding to them, and de-historicized the events leading up to 9/11; the Cold War evoked old notions of a clash between ways of life — then, Capitalism and Communism, now, the West and Islam — and allowed the emerging War on Terror to be constructed as a lengthy, amorphous contest between ideologies.

The result of this was to

fix their meaning and establish the context of public knowledge of these events in very specific ways. For example, [these fallacious analogies to past historical moments] establish American understanding of the events as part of a long and heroic struggle against totalitarian and murderous ideologies such as fascism and communism. […] One of the most important consequences of these constructions, and part of their intended function, is to de-historicise the events from the recent past, while simultaneously imposing a more distant historical reading with a radically different set of interpretations, [in other words, the interpretations customarily due the War of 1812, Pearl Harbor, and the Cold War.]

Jackson’s larger point, and a point which I wish to emphasize, is that the way the War on Terror was discursively interpreted, and the resulting definitions, language, and categories we use to think about the war, were not inevitable. They were intentionally constructed. As Jackson concludes,

Other narratives, other analogies, other myths — different kinds of words and language — could have been employed by officials. Employing a dissimilar vocabulary would have fixed a different set of meanings and a different set of options for responding to those attacks. Within alternative narratives, policies apart from war might have seemed more logical and commonsensical. Giving meaning to the September 11, 2001 attacks in not a case of simply ‘letting the facts speak for themselves,’ but rather of deploying language in such a way that only certain interpretations are possible.

Lockerbie destruction

Lockerbie destruction

The War on Terror could have been defined in different ways. Instead of a global War on Terror, the Bush administration could have treated the attacks as a criminal matter with a police function. Such an approach had precedent; in 1988, the Lockerbie Bomber destroyed Pan Am Flight 103 over Scotland, killing 270 people. The ensuing investigation was handled as a criminal matter, not as the first strike in a war. Yet such alternative ways of understanding the war were gradually but steadily closed off as post-9/11 events unfolded.

Precisely as this suggests, the diversity of response to the September 11 attacks that existed at Bethel in September 2001 steadily diminished over the coming year. Bethel’s liberal students did try to push back against this narrative, but were largely unsuccessful. One such example appeared on the first anniversary of the attacks. Paul Wonders, the Clarion’s Variety Editor, critiqued the way “9/11” had been fixed in the public consciousness over the previous year. Contrasting an “event-focused” paradigm with a “date-focused” paradigm, Wonders argued that the former was preferable:

In the first model, there is a linear progression. And event occurs, followed by a response. Each response brings a plethora of logical and ethical questions too numerous to list completely: How does this war end? Why have the people that were killed in the Twin Towers received victim status while those killed in Afghan villages are merely civilian casualties? What are we fighting for? (Justice? End of fear? End of hate?) Does justice mean eye-for-an-eye, or annihilation of all our enemies?¹⁰

Color-9-11-never-forgetIn a date-focused paradigm, Wonder suggested, recalling 9/11 only forced a person to “deal with that particular date. The feelings you associate with that day will rise up and you will have the choice to salvage or ignore them. Neither choice, however, requires you to consider the events of any day following the 11th of September.” Each time 9/11 was remembered, Wonders continued, Americans would feel “fear, horror, grief, anger, and pride” — a reaction that would not vary with the passage of time. Operating under a date-focused paradigm allowed Americans to ignore the questions “actions taken on 9-12 or 10-15 or even (God forbid!) 2002” raised.¹¹ The result was that the moment of 9/11 was locked in time, unaffected by subsequent events — a conclusion fully compatible with Jackson’s.

By December 2003, any alternative narratives for the War on Terror were defeated. That was the last time students perceptibly struggled over the meaning of 9/11 and the kinds of actions it required from the U.S. in response. After 2003, the War on Terror paradigm was simply assumed and events which occurred within its umbra were automatically accepted as following logically from the larger framework. That change was probably due at least as much to the the ever-younger age of students during the 9/11 attacks; past a certain point, students no longer remembered the early days in which the meaning of the War on Terror was contestable. Students may have questioned specific actions within the War on Terror paradigm, but such questioning did not extend to the validity of the paradigm itself.

For myself, this discussion is not merely academic. In choosing how to approach the War on Terror section of this project I was forced to consider these issues and arrive at a solution that hopefully avoided the worst assumptions of the War on Terror. I am not particularly happy with the result for several reasons (aside from the fundamental issue of calling it the War on Terror). First, I fear that beginning the story on September 11, 2001 has the same effect as the Pearl Harbor analogy that Jackson identifies — to decontextualize the attacks from the prior history of Al Qaeda and the United States’ mutual antagonisms. Yet that is where the story began, particularly relative to Bethel’s experience of the war. To begin before September 11 would be to go indefensibly far afield from the parameters of this project.

Indonesian Muslims

Indonesian Muslims

Second, I am deeply dissatisfied with the language I have been forced to employ at points of this study. The essay on curricular development is particularly problematic. The War on Terror has imbued words like ‘Muslim,’ ‘Middle East,’ and ‘Islamic’ with a burdensome set of associations — associations I do not wish to raise in that work. But in writing about the expansion of Bethel’s curriculum to cover more of the history and politics of the peoples of the Middle East (itself a largely Western-constructed term), such terms are inevitable. I considered alternatives, but such novelties quickly became cumbersome. I’ve also agonized at points over the orientalism that is so easy to fall into when writing about the War on Terror. I’ve paid particular attention to using images that do not stereotype tropes of an ‘oriental other.’ More broadly, I am concerned at how much terms like ‘Islamic’ and ‘Muslim’ are constructed with the implicit exclusion of the entire peoples and historical experiences of the nations of Southeast and Pacific Asia — nations such as Indonesia that have majority Muslim populations. Indeed, more Muslims live in Asia than in the Arab Middle East. Why then, when using the phrase ‘Muslim nation’ do Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Egypt come to mind, while Malaysia and Indonesia do not? Because the War on Terror is not primarily concerned with those places.

Such is the linguistic burden of the War on Terror. Over the past decade and a half, the war has both created and perpetuated a politically and culturally-laden taxonomy for how Americans — myself included — see the world. And as much as education, cultural awareness, and reflective thinking can combat the manichean picture the War on Terror ultimately dictates, the war has unleashed powerful imaginative forces throughout American culture — forces which are difficult to overcome entirely. If this essay accomplishes one thing, I hope it is to make visible some of the ways story and narrative, meaning and substance, are shaped by the language and structures of organization we use to communicate. The War on Terror narrative is highly contingent — but for certain choices made in the days after 9/11 the American response could have shaped an entirely different paradigm. Yet in spite of its contingency, the War on Terror has become enmeshed in the language, assumptions, and boundaries of our lives, exerting a powerful influence on how we see the world. This powerful discursive community has no less effect on how historians conceive, organize, and write the “facts of history.”

— Fletcher Warren

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Citations
¹ George Lakoff, “War on Terror, Rest in Peace,” Rockridge Institute, 2006.
² Timothy Goddard, “War and peace both offer lessons,” The Clarion 2001-09-27.
³ Mary Dudziak ed, September 11 in History: A Watershed Moment? (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003), 3-4; Marilyn Young, “Ground Zero: Enduring War,” In Dudziak, September 11 in History, 27.
⁴ Dilip Hiro, War without End: The Rise of Islamist Terrorism and Global Response (London: Routledge, 2014), 210.
⁵ Richard Jackson, Writing the War on Terrorism: Language, Politics, and Counter-terrorism (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2005), 43.
⁶ Jackson, Writing the War on Terror, 31-8.
⁷ Ibid., 38-46.
⁸ Ibid., 57-8.
⁹ Ibid., 58.
¹⁰ Paul Wonders, “September twelfth, two thousand one,” The Clarion 2002-09-18.
¹¹ Ibid.

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